Forward going backwards
Geir Jenssen and I go back a long way. Of course he doesn’t know that, but that’s the way it is. A good 27 years now. It’s a good relationship and it’s renewed with every album. We have some really good years and some are pretty much okay, you know how it is. And just like every long lasting relationship it started with a special moment. In this case it was a present. Back in 1995 I was still a junior copywriter in an advertising agency, and it was still the age of great TV commercials. They took risk back then. Especially Levi’s did, with their iconic films and their really awesome and courageous choices of music to go with them. Twice these commercials would hevavily influence my musical preferences. Once in 1996 when they chose “Falling Elevators” by MC 900 Ft Jesus and once a year earlier, when they picked Biosphere’s “Novelty Waves”.
The present I am referring to was – of all things – a CD single, and of course it was “Novelty Waves”. The commercial had just been out and I had no idea about the artist behind the cool music, didn’t know the name, nothing. No surprise, hardly anyone did. I listened to it, all of the mixes (never thought that any of the remixes really had a chance against the original), and wanted to know more. Didn’t take long and I had two vinyl versions of “Novelty Waves” (regular and white label) and two versions of the album “Patashnik” (CD and vinyl). Same goes for “Microgravity”, the album that came out before our relationship started.
Like I said, we had some outstanding years, like in the early 2000s. Great times at the “Cirque”, the Debussy-inspired days of “Shenzhou” – it all went way much deeper than the fast paced early phase. There were hard topics to confront sometimes, life isn’t all hee-hee ha-ha, we all know that. “Departed Glories”. That’s how it is on our planet, the unspeakable is just as much a part of it as its endless beauty.
Twenty-seven. That’s about as many years as there are Biosphere albums in my collection. If you’ve spent one or the other decade on this planet you will know how it is when there is enough of a past to let you sit there and look back at something that is decidedly further back than last week or before the pandemic. 1995. Sometimes you look back and your mind circles around how you did what you did back then. How your mind worked, what sparked the creativity back then, how you dealt with the limited tools that were available. On a very small scale I can even relate. How I marveled at what you could do with a simple first generation sampler like the second hand Akai S612 that I bought. Or the old Korg Wavestation.
Geir Jenssen goes back even further than that, to the late 70s and early 80s, the years when your hardware didn’t have a memory, didn’t know what a preset was and normally didn’t communicate with each other. What he doesn’t do on “Shortwave Memories” though is recreating the music of that time. As much as memories maybe part of the title, it’s not a nostalgic trip to the past. It’s an album based on the question what the 2020s version of Geir Jenssen would come up with if he was transported back in time, restricted to what musical instruments were able to do in those days.
That in itself is not necessarily a brand new concept – but when someone whose body of work is so far removed from whatever the mainstream of modern electronic music may be is embarking on such a journey it’s something special. A little mysterious too. There’s a list of all the equipment that was used to create this album and there’s a kind of logo on the front of the sleeve, next to the name, a “B” for Biosphere, derived from the Roland “R” logo. Plus the stunning design, as always. And that’s it. Geir Jenssen isn’t the kind of guy that gives you more context than necessary to enjoy the work at hand.
What we get, therefore, is not Microgravity 2 or Patashnik 3 (#2 was published digitally in 2014). According to Geir Jenssen, he tried to put himself in the shoes of producers like Daniel Miller and Martin Hannett, asking the question “what would happen if I had the chance to use the same instruments, and applied the same meticulous attention to detail” as these guys.
So how does it sound when Biosphere goes backwards to move forward? It’s a special kind of beauty that emanates from these (comparatively) simple instruments. They are able to lend a certain touch of romanticism to the sound of Biosphere. The compositions aren’t trying to get more out of the instruments than they are able to deliver, and as much as that may seem an impossibility, Geir Jenssen makes them sound dignified. The pads are gracious, the melodies are kept minimal in a way that doesn’t let you miss anything – even in its reduction worlds can be found. And I’m not even talking about the relatively obvious hint of Blade Runner soundtrack atmospheres. It’s smaller things. A tinkly little sequence on “Interval Signal” that feels like it’s inspired by early mobile phone ring tone melodies. Another series of notes reminding me of the peculiar little melody they used to communicate with the extraterrestrials in “Close Encounter Of The Third Kind”, along a tiny little rhythm that seems to come from one of these really early drum machines with the rhythm patterns – and no, here it’s anything but cheesy, even this tiny beat has grace and is respected.
You start thinking that when Jenssen says he was “inspired by the post-punk electronic music of the late 70’s and early 80’s” he is actually talking about something that is much closer to love. Maybe it’s something that you are able to detect a little more easily after 27 years spent together and I can imagine that some people might not get the deep romance that is surrounding these 57 minutes of music. After all, we’re still talking about a Biosphere album.
Talking of which – as much as this may not be about the early days of Jenssen’s career, there are a few patashnikesque moments. It’s not like you can put your finger on it though, and say hey look that’s a little bit like “Mir”. It’s more of a subliminal thing – and it probably even increases the slightly romantic feel. I am sure that I am by far not the only one that went back to the collection, pulled out “Patashnik”, listened to it again and renewed the conviction that it’s a masterpiece of electronic music.
Whether this is true about “Shortwave Memories” as well – not important, really. I find it fascinating that after 27 years of a relationship you can realize that there is still a lot of magic and beauty, grace and respect, love and understanding.
Release for review:
BIOSPHERE – SHORTWAVE MEMORIES – BIOPHON – BIO36LP